Month: October 2015

Faith When You Cannot Hear

This week I didn’t attend the Thursday night Bible study in the maximum security unit. I had a head cold that completely plugged up my ears.


Even in “normal” Bible studies outside the walls I’ve noticed that people tend to be rather quiet when they are sharing something deeply personal. It tends to come off rather callous if the Bible study leader says, “WHAT?” and makes them repeat it. It is even more off-putting and potentially hurtful if the Bible study leader appears to ignore what someone has said, especially if it is something deeply personal.

In addition to those scenarios the reality of ministering behind bars is this:

  1. I must be able to hear correctional officers (COs) if they give a command
  2. I must be able to hear and respond to the men particularly if they are trying to alert me that they are in danger.

An example of the first item: If the COs determine there is a security situation requiring a lockdown they may just open the door and say, “Lockdown”, and I will need to immediately end the study and move out of the unit. (See my earlier blog post “Lockdown”)


On the second item: At either the beginning or the end of a study someone may try to alert me that they are in danger. Another chaplain in a womens’ unit talked about a time that a woman gave her a small note that read either  ”help” or “911”. The chaplain took her to the CO to get her put into protective custody. It turns out the woman had already been attacked once and was at very real risk of being attacked again even more severely.

Good hearing goes beyond just the convenience aspect. It is a matter of safety as well,  for both me, for the men, and for the staff.


While it is important to be consistent in ministry, it is also important to understand our limitations. Consider this scripture:

2 Timothy 4:20

20 Erastus stayed in Corinth, but Trophimus I have left in Miletus sick.

Paul isn’t shaming Trophimus for being sick. Trophimus was clearly ministering with Paul (Acts 20 and 21). Now he needed to deal with his illness.

Now some may think, “but if I don’t go then who will minister to those men?”

But I don’t bring Jesus to the jail. Jesus is already there. I already know that some of the men are ministering to an encouraging each other. In the unit where I lead the study they are served breakfast very early in the morning – usually around 3 or 3:30am. For this meal the men are let out of their cells to go to the common area where they can get their breakfast. This is a time the men can converse with each other. I’ve already heard about some of the encouragement and discussions of faith that happens at the breakfast table.

Matthew 18:20

20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

That means even behind bars.


Waiting Behind Bars

There were 12 guys from the upper tier of the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study. Just as I’ve noticed in the lower tier, about half of the guys attending tonight were new. Many of the guys are waiting for their trial date to come up, a few may be serving their sentence at this facility, and others have been waiting a long time for their trial date to come up. I’ve heard of some of the guys waiting years for their case to finally get settled.

Tonight’s discussion opener was about waiting. Is there waiting that is good, and is there waiting that is bad? In the maximum security unit there is a LOT of time spent waiting. Most of that is bad waiting. Waiting for court dates, waiting to meet with their lawyer, waiting for visits – especially when the person never shows up. Waiting for meals, waiting for rec time, waiting for programming – through there aren’t many programs available in this unit.


There is good waiting in life. Waiting for the pizza to cool so you don’t burn the roof of your mouth, waiting for a game to start — some of the guys are avid football and basketball fans. The thought that brought a smile to everyone’s face was: waiting to get released.


I asked what they did to pass the time while they were waiting: sleep, read, pray, talk to their celly. One guy made a crude comment about another activity individuals do to pass the time. These topics sometimes come up when you have a Bible study behind bars. Time to transition to the scripture.

Isaiah 40:27-31

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
And speak, O Israel:
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
And my just claim is passed over by my God”?
28 Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The everlasting God, the Lord,
The Creator of the ends of the earth,
Neither faints nor is weary.
His understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall,
31 But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

For verse 27 I asked about if they had ever seem people who were convinced that even God had forgotten about them. One of the guys said he had been struggling with that this past week. It seemed like so many people had lost faith in him: his family, his parole officer, his lawyer. He began to wonder if even God had given up on him. I asked what he had done about it. He shared some of the scriptures that he had been reading this week about God’s patience and forgiveness. He also talked about a book he was reading about a man who had committed crimes almost identical to his, and how God was using that man. It encouraged him to know that his situation wasn’t hopeless, and that God hadn’t given up on him.

In verse 28 we talked about how God isn’t limited by visiting hours. God has 24/7 access and doesn’t turn them away because He is too tired. He also understands our situation. They can cry out to God.


In verse 29 the guys talked about their own feelings of powerlessness while they are incarcerated. They have no control over when meals come, when medicine gets taken.
29 He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength.
They took great comfort and encouragement in those words. So I asked some of the guys how they had seen this happen already. Several of the men talked about God giving them the ability to choose how they respond to their circumstances – they can choose peace and gratitude for what they do have rather than being bitter about what they have lost. They can choose to focus on forgiveness rather than revenge.

We spent most of our time discussing:

31 But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.

The sports fans talked about how during the first half of a game team may not be doing well. At half -time they take a break. They wait. They listen to the coach. They think about what they will do, not only if the play goes well, but even how to recover if the play doesn’t go well. They take the time to get their strength back.


I shared a little bit about eagles. They have large, heavy wings. They are among the highest flying birds, but they don’t get to those heights by just flapping their wings. They wait for the thermals to lift them up. They have learned how to soar by learning how to wait for the up drafts. We wait on God and learn how to deal with life according to His plan rather than by our own flapping.


Crows, Roosters, and Forgiveness

There were 19 guys from the lower tier of the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study. Around half were new guys.

Most Bible study leaders would be thrilled at an increased turnout. For me a larger turnout is bittersweet. I am grateful for the guys that come and want a change in their life. I learn so much from their perspective. I am saddened that there is a continuous stream of people coming in as fast or faster than guys are leaving.


Each week I pray about what passage to cover. The lessons need to be self-contained because new people would not have context if I refer to a study from a previous week. Some guys are only in for a short period of time before they are either released or sent upstate. But I also have some guys that have been there for a long time so I can’t do the same lesson over and over. I’ve been facilitating the Bible study in this unit for 11 months now, and some of the guys have been there the entire time.

This week is was a collection of scriptures, so I was unsure how it was going to turn out.

For an opener I asked what it meant or what it felt like when somebody had your back. I heard phrases such as: feeling safe, secure, confident, powerful. I then asked what it felt like when someone didn’t have your back. What did it feel like when you thought someone would be there for them but they weren’t? Betrayal, anger, disappointment, disillusionment.

It is a very common experience for these guys to expect that people will come to visit them in jail, but their friends and family don’t show up. One guy said, “We only are allowed two one-hour visits a week, but people won’t even spare one or two hours a week to visit them.” They feel abandoned, alone, forgotten.

I asked if any had ever been on the other side. Had they promised to come visit, but never did? Yes. Many were guilty of that as well. There was a sense of shame.


Our first scripture was:

Matthew 26:31-35

Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial

31 Then Jesus said to them, “All of you will be made to stumble because of Me this night, for it is written:

‘I will strike the Shepherd,
And the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’

32 But after I have been raised, I will go before you to Galilee.”

33 Peter answered and said to Him, “Even if all are made to stumble because of You, I will never be made to stumble.”

34 Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you that this night, before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”

35 Peter said to Him, “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!”

And so said all the disciples.

Peter promised Jesus he would be there for him. These guys also had people who said they would be there for them.

Like Peter, some of these guys had made promises to others that they would be there for them, and like Peter, they hadn’t come through.

Side Note:

Not all of the guys who attend the study have reading skills. They don’t pick up a Bible and will just listen to the story. One of the guys looked confused and was trying to get an explanation from the person next to him. I asked if I could help. He said he was confused about the crow and the rooster and didn’t understand what they had to do with the story. Some of the other guys who had grown up on a farm explained to him what it meant for a rooster to crow.


Back to our story.

I explained that Jesus was then arrested and taken away. Later Jesus was having an arraignment. This is where the story picks up.

Matthew 26:69-75

Peter Denies Jesus, and Weeps Bitterly

69 Now Peter sat outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus of Galilee.”

70 But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.”

71 And when he had gone out to the gateway, another girl saw him and said to those who were there, “This fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth.”

72 But again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the Man!”

73 And a little later those who stood by came up and said to Peter, “Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you.”

74 Then he began to curse and swear, saying, “I do not know the Man!”

Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 And Peter remembered the word of Jesus who had said to him, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” So he went out and wept bitterly.


In verse 70 we observed that if any of have ever lied then we have something in common with Peter. In verse 72 we observed that if any of us have lied under oath we have something in common with Peter. In verse 74 we observed that if any of us have cursed or used swear words then we have something in common with Peter.

If any of us have been arrested then we have something in common with Jesus. If any of us have been taken to jail and court then we have something in common with Jesus. If any of us have had friends let us down, then we have something in common with Jesus.

I talked about how Jesus was crucified but then was resurrected, which takes up to our final scripture passage:

John 21:15-19

Jesus Restores Peter

15 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah,[a]do you love Me more than these?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Feed My lambs.”

16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah,[b] do you love Me?”

He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.”

He said to him, “Tend My sheep.”

17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah,[c] do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?”

And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep. 18 Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.”19 This He spoke, signifying by what death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me.”

Jesus said, “do you love Me more than these.” I asked what the word “these” referred to. Perhaps it was the other disciples. So it could have meant do you love Me more than these people do. Or it could have meant, do you love Me more that you love these people. Or it could have meant Peter’s occupation, since Peter had gone back to fishing. Was it important for Peter to have a job that he knew how to do?

I asked what “these” would refer to in their own lives. What was in competition for their love and devotion to Jesus? The things they thought of were: friends, family, lifestyle, power, and addictions.

Some observed that Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to declare his love for Jesus compared to the three times Peter had denied Him; grace abundant for any sin.

I asked the guys if they could forgive the people who had abandoned them. There was some discussion about how hard that would be if you saw that person again who had betrayed you. We talked about how you can practice forgiveness – that you can rehearse that forgiveness in your mind and heart every day even while you are in jail – the practice of forgiveness.


Light, Darkness, and Confessions of a Stolen Bible

There were 18 guys from the Upper Tier of the maximum security unit at Thursday night’s Bible Study. Probably 12 of the 18 men were new.

I usually tell the guys that they can get a Bible of their own if they get a request form from the CO (correctional officer) and send it to the chaplain. One guy seemed very interested and had me repeat the information for him.

We opened, as we usually do, by singing Amazing Grace, and one of the guys opened us in prayer.

I asked about light. How dark was it in the unit at night – there are always some lights on. Some talks about how at other facilities the COs would wake them up by turning on all the lights. It sounded as painful as my mother turning on the overhead light of the bedroom and proclaiming, “Rise and shine!” Light isn’t always appreciated.

We talked about darkness. Many of the guys have kids, so they are accustomed to tripping over children’s toys in the dark. Legos are the worst.

I shared a haiku that I had written:

Stumble in the dark
My foot finds the table leg
The toenail is gone


The advantage of turning on a light is you can see what you are really dealing with, and you are less likely to stumble.

Our study was:

1 John 1:5-10

Fellowship with Him and One Another

This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

I asked what they thought it meant when it said, “God is light”. Does that mean we create God every time we turn on a light switch or light a candle? They didn’t think so.

One man suggested that the very nature of God was that He brought light and illumination into the dark areas of our lives. Light always overcomes darkness. Though another man noted that he knew of really evil people who seemed to carry darkness with them. Something just felt “not right” and dark whenever they were around.

We talked about “fellowship” because that is a church word that isn’t used much in daily life. The group’s best definition of fellowship was “friendship where you encourage and support each other.”


We talked about people who had Jailhouse Jesus, that were all righteous while they were locked up but within two weeks of being released they went back to their addictions and their former way of life. I asked if that is what John meant when he wrote, If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”

Yes, there are posers who just pretend to be Godly when it is convenient but there is not heart change. But that didn’t mean that everyone who stumbles was a phony. Addictions are difficult to overcome. They said it was possible for someone to really believe but to stumble. That is why verse 7 provides hope.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.

There is forgiveness, cleansing, and fellowship – friendship where you encourage and support each other.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 

It is hard to deal with what is real if we keep denying it. I have another friend who was working in a jail setting. A guy was explaining to her that he didn’t understand why he was in there – that he and another guy had just had a misunderstanding and now he was locked up. She said to him, “Dude, the other guy is dead because you shot him. That’s not just a misunderstanding.”


Over the years I’ve met some people who have done really horrendous things, and sometimes it took them a while to face the reality of what they had done. But when they finally do, what is their hope?

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

I asked what “confess” meant, and the consensus of the group was that it meant to tell the truth. At this point the guy who had asked about getting a Bible said he had a confession. When there was another Bible study earlier in the week he had stolen a Bible because he wanted to read it. He understood the irony of that action.

This man was hungering so much for a change in his life that he stole a Bible.


They also concluded that verse 10 was a bit of a downer for an ending…

10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

But there was actually some comfort in it; they were not alone. This verse even applies to our grandmothers, and people who go to church, everybody. Sin is a universal problem, not just for people who are behind bars.

For some of these guys the things they have done may dictate where they will live, but because of Christ’s work it doesn’t have to define who they are.

1 John 1.9